Towards a universal online library of learning material

How much material has been lost through the years? Now the question is of course what do I mean by material. For example, do I mean the trivial stuff such as typed office memorandums or the less trivial—the missing live broadcasts of the early Dr Who. No, let me focus on what I consider to be the most important material of all, that which may have a positive effect on the next generation— the historical and educational material that helps our children form sophisticated models of the Universe around us.

Before starting I should mention that these are my personal views and do not necessarily represent the views of any related organization.

I must admit to a certain bias in this article: I’m a developer that works for a University. I build and glue things. And, if that doesn’t work, I get a big hammer out and start breaking things into smaller bits and rattling the boxes. Therefore, my bias is clear: I like things to work and, if on a good day the sun is smiling and my children allow me to sleep for ten hours, then I think about the broken pieces from the hammer expedition that are inelegant. An example inelegancy is the minimal reuse of content throughout the online, educational biosphere and how painful it is to look at.

I wrote a paper once before I fossilized into my current inert mental state. What I had found—and yes the information is obvious—is that teachers place a lot of Microsoft Office content into Course Management Systems. Worse still is that the content is difficult to get out and transport. Sure, there are excellent export/import enabling standards such as Scorm and IMS. However, the use of these on the ground is somewhat limited and not backdated to some of the older weather worn golden nuggets of creative content. Not only Office, how about handcrafted HTML and the 4 trillion office file types used over the prehistory of the Internet. However, the current standards are almost all we have active at present on the front line of this entropy driven battle, so let us use them thoroughly.

Last week I mentioned and its brilliant efforts at accumulating media content. I was especially impressed because of the educational section. It would be the height of civilization to have a Universal online library, which is accessible to all. I would love to see the steady flow of content from all Universities and Course Management Systems towards such a unified library. Think about those $100 dollar laptops going to the third world. How about accumulating and placing content available for reconversion and delivery to the people that most need it.

Another bias of mine is the severe use of rose tinted glasses. My postgraduate teacher training was done at Bolton Institute, now Bolton University. I have warm remembrances of the local culture and positive interactions with beer and like-minded friends. Therefore, when talking about Bolton, I have that warm fuzzy feeling from a time well enjoyed. Anyway, Bolton is one of the supporters of the Reload project, a number of Scorm/IMS tools are mentioned therein. I have the feeling that if we wait a couple of software generations the tools are going to be particularly useful.

Third world bandwidth is an issue and so too the specification of what $100 dollar laptop is. However, if you believe in community centers, with one decently specified computer with a DVD player and a modem, then you could use the computer to order a custom DVD from a local mirror of the central archive containing a personalized set of courses. Once you have the content centrally and without copyright restrictions and the right content players locally, much knowledge can be delivered at a reasonable price.

What am I trying to convey is that we have an example of a Universal library and we have examples of potentially Universal content. What is missing at present is a link between the central repository of free educational material and the Individual learning systems. This is where free software players such as Moodle and Sakai can facilitate in this process by delivering tools that help export to the central archive. This would thus allow teachers and lecturers an easy root to agree to sharing. I’m not saying that these learning systems don’t have Scorm compliant tools. What I am saying is that we are missing a central repository. Perhaps not for the newest courses for commercial and competition reasons. However, what about the three year old courses waiting to be backed up one final time for prosperity. Surly educational establishments can give the courses away for the greater good if they are not already doing so.

I am sure most of the technological aspects are straightforward to solve and the political and legal landscape more difficult to navigate. However, I do believe a central archive would a defining icon of a civilized world, a concept worth working towards.


Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.